The Girl Who Stole an Elephant is the debut book from Nizrana Farook. Being an avid traveller, I adore stories which have other countries and cultures at their heart. Farook was born and raised in Sri Lanka and she immerses the reader into the country and its wonders in this thrilling adventure about criminal acts, bandits, a tyrannical ruler, revolution and a royal elephant.
The story is that of a modern day Robin Hood; Chaya steals jewels from the rich inhabitants of the King’s City to give to the poor villagers so they can pay for basic essentials. What starts out as a daring heist to help a villager sparks a chain of events that make for a dangerous dash into the jungle. Accompanied by Ananda the elephant, Chaya, Neel and Nour must evade capture and figure out a way to safely return to their homes. With the help of a group of bandits and with revolution stirring they might have a chance to return as unlikely heroes.
The narrative sweeps you away into a Sri Lankan (Serendib to be exact) wonderland; you imagine being surrounded by green forests split by silver rivers speckled with lotuses, staring at tamarind trees, coconut blossoms and frangipani flowers, inhaling the aromas of frying sweetmeats, listening to the call of the myna bird, and gorging on jambu fruits, coconut covered sweet potato, sugar cane, papaya and jackfruit.
The moral dilemmas in this book really challenge the reader and there are many occasions where you question the actions of the three main protagonists. Are they criminals, heroes or victims of an oppressive regime? The read promotes discussion and asks us to question our own morals and beliefs. Can we ever justify doing the wrong thing for the right reasons? Farook helps us to understand that all of our actions have consequences and that we need to be responsible for these consequences whether they be positive or negative. In the story, friendships are put to the ultimate test and it encourages the reader to reflect on how many people are really your friends? In a world where we count friends by the number we have on Facebook or the number of followers we have on Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, it is easy to say we have lots of friends. But how far would you be willing to go for these people? Would you tell a lie, break the law, go on the run, give up your life? Perhaps, it is our willingness to do more for certain friends that separates them from our social media buddies. Developing the theme of friendship further, Farook has also woven into the narrative valuable lessons on the importance of being kind and learning to accept others.
Each character is unique and they evolve through the story with, I felt, the exception of Neel. He remains kind, loyal and considerate throughout. Chaya is straight-talking and can always find a reason to justify her actions. I’m conflicted as to whether I like her and I think that is what makes her such a great character. She looks out for those she cares about but her actions do not always show consideration for others and her treatment of Nour for much of the story is unfriendly to say the least. She blames Nour for the events that unfold and is happy to use her, viewing her as an expendable commodity rather than a person. As the story unfolds, Chaya learns the errors of her ways and grows into a much more accepting and kind girl. Nour is the odd one out and is treated like that. She is the daughter of a merchant, only knows a life of riches and has an innocence of the real world that comes across in subtle humour - she grabs supplies for the jungle escape and receives utter contempt from Chaya when the she reveals bedsheets and toiletries as opposed to salt, food and water. For Nour, this is about much more than just bedsheets and toiletries, she wants to feel part of something, she wants adventure and excitement, she wants a friend.
Farook has written a narrative that moves at pace and with chapters that end on cliff-hangers it is a book that is incredibly difficult to put down - I read it in an afternoon. An engrossing adventure that many children will delight in.
Recommended for 8+.